In 1919, Spanish Basque fashion designer Cristòbal Balenciaga first started the Balenciaga fashion house as a small boutique in San Sebastián, Spain. The designer had a reputation from the start for having high, and unwavering, standards. It was this commitment to impeccable design that elevated the Balenciaga name among his contemporaries. This steadfast attention to detail coupled with the founder’s forward-thinking approach to designs would both become hallmarks of the Balenciaga fashion house.
As the company expanded, Balenciaga boutiques were opened in Santiago, Madrid, and Barcelona. The Balenciaga reputation had grown so much that the Spanish Royal Family began to wear the company’s designs. However, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Cristòbal was forced to close his stores in Spain. He moved to Paris shortly afterward.
In Paris, Balenciaga opened a store on the posh Avenue George V. It was 1937, and the designer had his first runway show, which was steeped in references to the Spanish Renaissance. The collection was an overnight success, with the French Press raving about the new designer who had just recently arrived from Spain. They called Balenciaga’s designs revolutionary, with public demand increasing as a result. One of the popular Balenciaga creations of this time was the brand’s signature “square coat,” in which the coat’s sleeves were cut along with the yoke.
During the post-War years, Balenciaga’s designs had cleaner, more defined lines — in stark contrast to the feminine hourglass shapes presented by Christian Dior and other designers of the time. The shapes created by Balenciaga enabled him to play with the design and its relation to a woman’s natural body shape — for example, a waistline would be dropped below or placed above a woman’s natural waistline, adding visual interest and creating an ever-changing silhouette.
By the 1950s, Balenciaga would turn the traditional hourglass shape on its ear by playing with more modern shapes. His innovative designs spawned creations like the tunic dress (1951), the balloon jacket (1953), the baby doll dress, (1957), the cocoon dress (1957), the balloon skirt (1957), and the sack dress (1957). By 1959, Balenciaga would finish off the decade with his creation of the empire line, an elevated waistline used on Balenciaga dresses and coats. This new cut would further modernize women’s fashion just in time for the new era.
The Balenciaga designs of the 1960s incorporated a lot of embroidery work and heavy fabrics. The brand became known for their heavy collar design that accentuated the collarbone, giving the wearer a long-necked and “swan-like” appearance. This design also included shortened cuffs and sleeves.
By the mid-1980s, luxury perfume and toiletries manufacturer Jacques Bogart S.A. purchased Balenciaga and released a new ready-to-wear line called “Le Dix.” Designed by French designer Michel Goma, the new Balenciaga line received mixed reviews. Goma would continue designing for Balenciaga for five more years. In 1992, Goma’s successor, Dutch designer Josephus Thimister, would join the ranks of the company and would be responsible for reversing the brand’s increasingly irrelevant status in the fashion world, turning it into one of the most powerful fashion houses of the time.
The young French designer Nicolas Ghesquière would join Balenciaga as license designer around this same time as Thimister. Ghesquière was promoted to head designer of the fashion house not long after, in 1997. He remained in this position until 2012, when the company announced that American fashion designer Alexander Wang would take over the role as Balenciaga’s new creative director. The young designer released his debut collection for the brand at Paris Fashion Week in February of 2013; the line was celebrated for its unusual materials and its intricate craftsmanship.
Today, the Balenciaga name continues to be associated with a classy, yet avant-garde approach to fashion. In particular, Balenciaga handbags, with their super sleek design, have been at the forefront of the brand’s success in recent years.